Death After Sorrow

Small Town Clues

Dean turned at the whistle that came from behind him. An older man, he had him pegged at no older than sixty five, was slowly approaching him. The sun was barely up, and the dark shine on the Impala was catching the early morning rays, giving it an almost ethereal appearance.

"Now that is a fine piece of work. Don't see many like that come through here," the older man cooed, reverently running a hand over the top of the car.

"Joe Springs?" Dean asked.

Joe didn't take his eyes off the car as he nodded. "Yep. You must be Dean. Rita called me this morning in a fit of rage that you had disappeared before having a proper breakfast. Pop the hood for me, would ya?"

Dean did as he was asked, blushing. "I'll apologize to her later. I just wanted to get here early, like she said."

Joe grinned as he fiddled with something under the hood. "No need. Rita's like that. Most folks tend to get taken under her wing. She's earned herself a reputation with the seasonal ranch hands. She takes care of her boys just like they actually were hers. After Bill died, I think it's the only thing that really keeps her going. You'd best just accept that while you're here, you've inherited a caretaker."

Dean laughed, though inwardly he wasn't thrilled with the idea. They needed a certain amount of anonymity to do their job. Having a hovering self-imposed grandmother was going to make things a little more difficult.

Joe dropped the hood. "Park this beauty around back. We've got a contract out at the Holders Ranch in half an hour."

"I got the job?"

"Boy, if you can keep this baby in as good shape as you have, then tractors are gonna be a piece of cake for you. Too many mechanics these days don't know how to deal with anything that doesn't have a million computer chips in it. But the roads around here are gonna tear her up. So we'll take my truck." Joe grinned. "Sides, Rita threatened to stop putting her cherry pie in my lunch if I didn't hire you."

Sam knocked on the door, stepping back as he waited for it to be answered. The Somers Ranch was huge, and it bustled with activity. Obviously a dairy ranch, from the looks of the barns that surrounded the house.

A woman about his age answered the door, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt that were already a little dirty from the morning chores. "Yes?"

"Hi, my name is-"

"I know who you are. Rita called me this morning and told me to expect you comin' by." She laughed at his surprised expression. "Honey, Faith is a small town. Not much goes on around here that folks can keep private."

Blushing, Sam grinned sheepishly. "I'm sorry for disturbing you, ah?"

"Judy. And don't be mad at Rita. Marie was one of my best friends. She didn't want you comin' here dragging up bad memories."

Sam nodded. "I understand. She was trying to protect you."

"Well, come in. You're here now. Don't know what I can tell you that I haven't already told the police."

Sam followed her inside, and was instantly struck by the homey atmosphere. The décor of the house was simple, filled with family pictures, prize ribbons and trophies. "You have a lovely home."

Judy smiled. "Would you like something to drink? I have some iced tea made up."

"That would be great, thanks."

"So why is it you're looking into Marie's death?" Judy called from the kitchen.

"I'm working on an article that is essentially going to be my final grade. The way she died just seems out of the ordinary."

Judy returned with two glasses of the promised tea, motioning for him to sit on the couch even as she took a seat in an armchair across from him. "The police have no leads. They don't even know where to start. Faith is such a small place, there isn't much by way of crime around here."

"But there have been similar deaths in the area, haven't there? Five, in the past five years."

Judy nodded. "Yeah. This was the first time it hit close to home, though. The last five were ranch hands who were passing through or just finishing up seasonal work."

"You wouldn't happen to remember their names?" Sam asked hopefully.

Judy shook her head. "Sorry. You think those murders are connected to what happened to Marie?"

"I'm not sure. That's what I'm looking to find out. Rita told us Marie had done a lot for the community. Did she have any enemies?"

Judy chuckled. "In a town this size, it's impossible not to. Everyone knows your business, whether you want them to or not. Marie was always the odd one out. She had never really fit in here, and folks around here, they don't take too kindly to different."

Sam frowned. "Marie didn't grow up here?"

"She was born here, but when her parents died, her aunt Millie sent her away to some fancy boarding school. Marie came back after college, when Millie died of lung cancer. She was- different. Like she'd seen more of the world and could see Faith for the haven it was."

"Rita said she'd never taken a husband? Is that so odd for the women in this town?" Sam asked.

Judy frowned. "That was gossip. There are plenty of single women in this community, some by choice, some widowed, some just never found the right one. Rita has older values than most, more traditional. Truth was, Marie just never slowed down long enough to catch a man's eye. She worked tirelessly for us when that tycoon came in."

"So, her enemies?"

"Like I said, mostly gossip. No one would outright kill her, I don't think. There were lots of folks who had wanted to see that developer succeed, but mostly because they couldn't see the bigger picture," Judy passed with a wave of her hand.

"And this group you had on Fridays? Do you mind telling me what it was about?"

"Oh, it's a silly thing, really. Just a bunch of the women getting together once a week to complain about their husbands, or pass along information on visiting ranch hands. Who could be trusted, who couldn't. That sort of thing. My husband started calling it the Hens Club," Judy laughed. "We invited Rita several times. She's the center of information for this place. If anyone knows what's going on, or who's who, it's her."

"But she never came?"

"Claimed she had too much work to do, what with keeping up the Bed and Pub."

Sam frowned. "She runs the Pub, too?"

"Owns it, yes. But since Bill died, she doesn't have much to do with it. About seven years ago, Cole was passing through. His car broke down, so he stayed at the Bed. While Joe was fixing it, Cole made some suggestions on how to improve the pub, modernize it without losing the traditionalism of it. Before the day was out, Cole had himself a job, and Rita a pub manager."

"Seven years ago? How long ago did Bill die?"

"Eight years ago. Damn fool was making a last run with the cattle, even if he was too old. Something caused them to stampede. Bill and three other hands died that day. My brother among them."

"I'm sorry."

Judy smiled sadly at him. "It was a long time ago, and it's one of the risks that come with the job. Our men die young, here. If you can't accept that, then you shouldn't marry a rancher."

"So, did Marie say anything strange before she died? Anything out of the ordinary?" Sam inquired, moving away from an obviously painful subject.

"No. In fact, she was excited. She thought she'd found a way to allow the town to make the money it needed without damaging the surrounding ranches. She died before she could tell me any more than that."

Sam nodded and stood. "Well, thank you very much for your time, and the ice tea. It tastes much better when it doesn't come from a can."

Judy laughed. "I hope you can find out more about what's going on than the police have. I would like to see these deaths brought to peace."

"One more question, if you don't mind. Can you tell me the last place Marie was seen outside her home?"

Judy shrugged. "At the Pub. You can find practically anyone in the area in there most nights."

"Thank you."

Sam left the ranch in the pickup he had rented, thinking about everything he had learned. It was time to go see the local coroner.

Dean tensed under the tractor as he heard footsteps approaching. They were lighter than a woman's, but not heavy enough to be a full grown male. Slow, and paced, as though the young man wanted to take his time getting to them, but didn't want to dawdle too much.

"Randy," Joe greeted. "How are you today?"

"It's a good day, Joe. Thanks. Mom said she wanted you to send the new guy over to do some fencing."

Dean pulled himself from the ground. Randy couldn't have been more than thirteen or fourteen, but he was pale, slight, and obviously sickly. Judging from the dark circles under his eyes, and the way the small frame shook with the exertions of the walk over, he would guess a heart condition of some kind.

"Uh, I don't know anything about fencing. I'm just a mechanic," Dean answered.

Joe chuckled. "Don't worry, you'll pick it up quickly enough. It sort of comes with the job, these little chores. Is it going to be a problem?"

Dean shook his head. "No problem. I'm just afraid I'll screw something up."

"Just do what everyone else is doing. Randy, why don't you take Dean to the house? Anne can pair him up with Toby."

Randy nodded eagerly. Dean was careful to match his pace to the teens, to not push him too hard. They were about halfway to the house when Randy stopped, obviously needing a break, and obviously embarrassed about it. Dean pretended to ignore it, and took the opportunity to look around.

"This place is huge. You could get lost here without even thinking about it," he commented.

Randy nodded. "Yeah, you can. You should see the orchard up over the hill."

Dean frowned. "There isn't a big, fugly, scarecrow in it, is there?" The boy looked at him questioningly, confused. Dean shook his head. "Never mind. So, fencing. What is there to that?"

Randy shrugged. "I don't know, really. I'm not allowed to do much around here." A fact that very clearly upset him.

"Why is that?"

"I have a congenital heart defect. Today's a good day, but most days, I'm pretty weak. In a place like this, that makes me useless," Randy explained bitterly.

Dean shook his head. "I wouldn't say that, Randy. Most children with CHD don't survive their first year. You've made it to what, thirteen? Fourteen? I'd say that's pretty strong. And no one is useless. Everyone has a talent for something."

Randy looked hopeful. "Really?"


His face fell again. "Even if I did, I probably won't live long enough to do anything with it."

"I know a thing or two about counting days, Randy. Trust me when I say you gotta make every one worth something, even if it's only worth it to you."

"Most people when they find out start spouting off about God's divine will. Thank you, for not doing that," Randy smiled.

Dean shrugged. "God can go get stuffed. It's your life, however long or short it is, and it's up to you to make the most of it. If you need some faith to help you through the tougher times, then by all means, use it, but don't let it become a crutch."

Randy cast shrewd eyes on the hunter. "You're not just a mechanic, are you?"

"What makes you say that?" They started making their way back to the house, allowing Dean to avoid having to look at the teen.

"The only people who talk like that are the ones who look death in the face every day, who know every morning they wake up might be their last. Not exactly the boring life of a mechanic."

Dean grinned. "Who says being a mechanic is boring? I came out to help fix a tractor and now I'm being shang hai'd into fencing. You never know what life is gonna throw at you. You just have to make the best of what you've got."

Randy snorted. "Definitely not a mechanic." But he let the subject drop as he needed his air to finish the walk.

Within the hour, Dean found himself so far out that he was positive they must be in another state, digging holes for the fence posts. Toby, the hand that had been assigned to him was a talkative man in his thirties.

"So, Toby, have you been around long?" Dean asked. Years of digging up graves made these little pot holes a piece of cake. It was actually kind of soothing to be able to do it without an angry spirit on his ass.

"Coupla years. Came on for the migration, but I did so well, they kept me."

"Notice anything strange happening around the town?"

Toby laughed. "A ranch is a ranch is a ranch. They don't differ none too much from one to the other. It's the little quirks that make them even a tiny bit unique," Toby grinned.

"What kind of quirks?"

Toby shrugged. "People have died in weird ways around here the last coupla years. Police ain't sayin' much, but gossip gets around. People completely drained of blood, some cattle what had the same done to 'em. Creepy."

Dean arched his eyebrows in surprise. "Drained of blood? How did that happen?"

"See, that's the funny part. No one knows. Every rumor you can imagine been flying around this town to explain it, and it's becoming a bit of an urban legend for the ranch hands. See, the first five murders was all hands what come in for the season."

"Is there any connection between them?"

"Some say that all the hands what died were bad types. Did some things that weren't exactly honest. Next thing you know, pow, they's all dead. My buddy, Keith, he was friends with the coroner. Said the blood had been evaporated, and the insides were boiled well done. There was a lot of talk about witchcraft for a while, 'fore the cops put a lid on it."

Dean forced a chuckle. "Witchcraft. That seems a little out there, don't you think? Especially in a town like this. Pretty small for a witch to hide in."

Toby shrugged. "I ain't the smartest man around, Dean, but I imagine that it would be perfect. My granny, she believed in that type of thing. Was always protecting herself against it. Said a witch can hide anywhere they have a like to. Small town like this, where folks need for things to stay the same so badly, would be a right ripe place."

Dean nodded. "So, your buddy, Keith, is he still around?"

Toby shook his head. "Nah. He was only on for a season. Hey, looks like Joe wants you back. They sent Randy to come get ya. Creepy kid. Into weird stuff, that one."

Dean followed his line of sight to see Randy driving a pickup toward them. "What kind of weird stuff?"

"He's always reading latin books. His body might be sickly, but that boy, he's pretty smart. He collects bones, too. Anyway, thanks for the help, man. Take care and I'll see you around."

Dean shook his hand, and the by the time he had thrown the shovel into the back of Toby's pick up, Randy had pulled up. "Hey Kiddo," Dean greeted.

"Joe's finished the tractor. You guys have to get back to the shop for lunch."

Dean hopped in, a little concerned about having the teen behind the wheel, but the kid was a decent driver. The drive took twice as long as it had to get out there, but he knew they had to take it easy so the ride wouldn't jar the sick boy. Randy had leaned over and turned on the radio to some country station, making Dean grimace. But as he'd once told Sam, driver picks the music, shot gun shuts his cake hole.

Sam turned as he heard the rumble of a truck pulling into the parking lot of the small garage. Rita had decided that he would be useful one way or the other, and the least he could do was take his brother some lunch. He'd gotten the riot act this morning when he'd made his way to the breakfast table, only to discover his brother had been long gone by then.

"Sam!" Dean called, hopping out. "What are you doing here?"

"Rita sent me over with lunch for you guys. And do me a favor tomorrow, Dean, don't skip out on breakfast," Sam quipped lightly, hiding his concern.

"Joe, this is my brother, Sam. He's a journalism student, working an article on the Miller death," Dean introduced, ignoring his brothers pointed look.

Joe shook Sam's hand, but appeared more interested in the basket he held. "Rita send me my pie?" He took the basket over to a picnic table and started laying out the numerous items.

Sam gave his brother a quick once over. Dean was filthy with dirt and grease, but he seemed more at ease than he had been for a while. Not for the first time, Sam wondered what Dean would have done with his life if their father hadn't raised them as supernatural warriors.

"Have you eaten yet?" Dean asked, breaking Sam from his thoughts.

"Yeah. But we have seriously gotta talk when you get off work. I've got a few leads. This afternoon I have an appointment with the coroner."

Dean nodded. "Me too. Had a couple of interesting conversations today. Apparently someone got the real story out of the coroner. The blood had been evaporated and the internal organs cooked dry."

Sam screwed up his face. "That sounds unpleasant. But, Dean, that kind of heat would have left burns on the skin. The eyes should have been melted out too."

"I know. Which makes me think our culprit wasn't a specific heat source."

"I've never heard of any demons that could do that. And most don't try to cover their tracks that well," Sam pointed out. "The death toll is a little low too, if it's been around this long."

"I don't think it's a demon. I think we've got a witch on our hands." Dean grimaced, absently pushing his fingers into his temple. "For such a small town, the list of suspects is endless." He closed his eyes against the head ache he could feel building. "Randy Holders apparently either is home schooled at a university level, or has a morbid fascination with latin and bones. God." He put both hands to his temples.

"Dean, are you all right?" Sam frowned in concern.

"Yeah, I'm fine. Just a headache. I was out digging holes for fence posts this morning. I might have gotten too much sun." Then his face crumpled in pain. "Shit!"

Sam barely had time to reach out as his brother collapsed, easing him gently to the ground. "Dean, stay with me," he ordered firmly, panicking a little. But it was too late. Dean was already unconscious, his head falling limply back before Sam could support it.

"What the hell?" Joe cried, coming to kneel next to them. "What happened?"

Sam looked up. "Is there a hospital around here? Or a doctor?"

Joe nodded. "There's a GP that lives in town. Retired, but he still looks after us. Get your brother over to Rita's and I'll have Doc Brown meet you there."

Sam nodded, getting Dean's arm around his shoulder and easily lifting his weight using the momentum he built standing up. Joe took up his other arm and helped Sam get him into the Impala.

Fifteen minutes later, Dean was lying in his bed at Rita's, still unconscious, while Sam paced around the small room, anxiously waiting for the Doctor to come. What the hell had happened? The last time Dean had passed out had been after a trance. Had he had another one this morning and not mentioned it?

"Sam?" Rita called. "Doc Brown is here."

Sam let him in, and was surprised to see an older man thinned and worn with age, but obviously still fit, wearing jeans and a flannel shirt. What had he expected? A little old man with glasses and shaking hands in a tweed jacket? "Thank you for coming, Doctor."

"Joe said he just collapsed? Was there any signs before it happened? Has it happened before?"

Sam hesitated. Whatever was happening to Dean, he was almost positive it was supernatural. The Doctor wouldn't be able to help with that, so there wasn't any real point in telling him everything. "No. But he said he had a headache right before he went down. It seemed to come on pretty suddenly."

Brown nodded, doing a cursory check of the young man on the bed. "Rita says he hasn't been eating? She says he was sick to his stomach last night, too."

Frowning, Sam nodded. So much for hoping they hadn't woken the old woman up last night. "He hasn't been sleeping well lately. Nightmares."

After that, he was shooed out of the room. He joined Rita downstairs.

"How is he?" she asked.

"Dr. Brown is looking at him now. Rita, we're sorry about last night. We didn't mean to wake you."

Rita nodded. "I don't mean to pry, but he was yelling out some weird stuff last night."

Sam realized he was going to have to tell her something, or they would lose her cooperation. As it stood, she was probably their best source of information. He also knew that lying to her would achieve the same result. So he took his brothers lead and told her the first half truth he could think of.

"He saw our mother die when he was four. Our father put a lot on him, after that. He's spent his entire life taking care of me. Sometimes, it just sort of creeps in to haunt him," Sam explained.

Rita nodded sympathetically, but before she had a chance to say anything, the doctor joined them.

"How is he?" Sam asked anxiously.

Brown smiled gently. "He's exhausted, and suffering from mild malnutrition. You need to make sure he eats, even if he does bring it up later. I've given him a mild sedative that should keep him out, and sleeping too deeply to dream, for a few hours. Here are some tablets that should help settle his stomach. They'll make him drowsy, though, so only give them to him at night."

"Thank you, Dr. Brown," Sam replied gratefully, taking the package of Gravol.

"If it happens again, don't hesitate to call me."

Sam reached for his wallet to pay the man, but to his surprise, Brown shook his head and looked hopefully to Rita. "I could maybe be persuaded to let it go for a piece of your pumpkin pie? With that cream topping you make?"

Rita chuckled. "Come on, you old fart. Have a seat and I'll get you some."

Sam smiled his gratitude to both and turned to head upstairs. He pulled up a chair next to Dean's bed and made himself comfortable. He wasn't moving until he'd had a chance to talk to his brother, and this time, Dean wasn't going to get away with only telling him half-truths. If they were going to get to the bottom of this, he needed to know everything.

If only he could shake this feeling in his gut that they were very quickly running out of time.

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